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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Ours to Plough, not to Plunder by Niyi Osundare

The earth is ours to plough and plant
the hoe is her barber
the dibble her dimple

Out with mattocks and matchets
bring calabash trays and rocking baskets
let the sweat which swells earthroot
relieve heavy heaps of their tuberous burdens

Let wheatfields raise their breadsome hands
to the ripening sun
let legumes clothe the naked bosom
of shivering mounds
let the pawpaw swell and swing
its headward breasts 

Let water spring
from earth’s unfathomed fountain
let gold rush
from her deep unseeable mines
hitch up a ladder to the dodging sky
let’s put a sun in every night

Our earth is an unopened grainhouse
a bustling barn in some far, uncharted jungle
a distant gem in a rough unhappy dust

This earth is
ours to work not to waste
ours to man not to maim
This earth is ours to plough, not to plunder.


In the second creation story, according to the Christian religion, God created the heavens and the earth but no plant had sprung up. This was because there was no man to till the ground.  He later created man and watered the earth so that plants would grow. When the plants sprung up, he assigned man to till and keep it. This was man’s foremost assignment. Right from the beginning, taking good care of the earth was highly significant. With the invent of technology, man has devised new farming methods to speed up the process. Unfortunately, alongside technology came beautiful hazards. This is the background with which the poet, Niyi Osundare, writes the poem.

Niyi Osundare is a Nigerian poet, dramatist and literary critic who was born in Ekiti, Nigeria. He published his fourth collection of poetry, Eye of the Earth in 1986. The collection is wholly devoted to the earth and its features. Ours to Plough and not to Plunder is one of the poems in the collection.  He is concerned about the slow but tenacious degradation of the earth and its resources by man. The message is summarized in the title Ours to Plough, not to Plunder. Osundare plainly means that the earth is an inheritance unto man to plough  which implies taking care of the earth  – and not to plunder, which signifies wrongfully making use of it. 

From the first stanza, to emphasize what Niyi Osundare means by the word ‘plough', simple farm tools are mentioned. The hoe is used in cultivating and weeding and it is directly compared to a barber who cuts, shaves, trims etc. the hair (line 2). Just as the barber maintains the hair of men, a hoe does the same to the earth by cultivating it. On the other hand, a dibble is used in making holes in the ground for planting and it is the earth’s dimple. This indicates that the earth smiles anytime seeds are being planted. We can clearly understand the innocence of these tools against the voraciousness of the agricultural machinery and inorganic farming methods which pose an ugly threat to the natural/pure state of the earth.

While the first stanza is about cultivating and planting, that is preparation, the second stanza is about harvesting. Other simple farm tools like ‘mattocks and matchets ‘, ‘calabash trays and rocking baskets' are used in the harvest season. After planting comes the harvest. The way the laborer sweated while planting, he/she should also harvest and ‘relieve heavy heaps of their tuberous burdens'(line 7). 

What comes after the harvest is food production. Wheat, from which bread is derived from is used as an example: ‘let wheatfields raise their breadsome hands’. Some plants are not just planted for food but for other purposes which are not beneficial to the earth. Legumes such as beans, peas and clovers are known for naturally adding nitrogen to the soil. They are also used as soil cover as they ‘clothe the naked bosom of shivering mounds'(lines 10 – 11). The soil is being likened to a naked person and the plants, its clothes, are put on to prevent the ‘mounds‘ from shivering. Trees like the pawpaw also perform protective functions as its voluminous leaves described as headward breasts  canopy the soil from direct contact with the sun. We can observe that Osundare emphasizes the preservation of the earth in these lines. Lines 8-13 provide us an imagery of a blooming earth. This blooming earth is threatened by the continuous environmental pollution which is an offspring of technology . Incidents such as deforestation, oil spillage, motor vehicle emissions, bush burning etc. are factors related to the wastage of the earth’s resources.

A major consequence of these activities of man is the depletion of the ozone layer. The ozone layer is a layer high above the earth’s surface that helps protect the earth from the sun’s harmful rays. This layer is being destroyed gradually by the incidents aforementioned. Instead of doing things in the natural way, people now prefer to overuse technological means. The depletion of the ozone layer is a perfect example of what would happen if we continue to plunder the earth. Once the layer is completely destroyed, the earth would  become unbearable to live in.  This is why the poet mentions farming as an activity that should be encouraged for the betterment of the earth, not using voluminous farming machinery but simple farm equipment. 

The poet not only emphasizes the genial exploitation of the agricultural resources but also the mineral resources. In lines 14 and 15, Niyi Osundare calls on humans to ‘let water spring from earth’s unfathomed fountain’. We cannot determine how much resources are ‘buried in deep unseeable mines' but we have to judiciously exploit them for our use. ‘Let’s put a sun in every night’ means that we should bring them into limelight instead of them lying underground useless. For these resources to have been formed, it must have taken centuries.  That doesn’t mean that they weren’t tapped by our forefathers; they were tapped judiciously considering the future generations. We should also behave in this manner so that the generations yet unborn would live to enjoy nature’s gift to man. 

In stanza 5, the earth is compared to an ‘unopened grainhouse', ‘a bustling barn’ and  ‘a distant gem'. These words suggest that the earth’s resources are bountiful and unexplainable. They are waiting ‘in a rough unhappy dust' to be exploited.

Despite its unfathomable capacity, the poet warns in the last stanza that it should not be wasted, maimed or plundered, rather it should be worked on, manned and ploughed. 


1. The unfathomable potentials of the earth. 
2. Preservation of the earth and its resources. 
3. The innocence of the traditional methods of farming.
4. The need for dignity of labour. 
5. The beauty of nature. 
6. The earth is blessed


1. Metaphor 
                  ‘tuberous burdens ‘
                  ‘the hoe is her barber'
                  ‘the dibble her dimple'
                  ‘ripening sun'
                  ‘ a sun in every night'
                 ‘our earth is an unopened grainhouse'
                  ‘our earth.........a bustling barn’
                 ‘our earth ………..a distant gem’. 

2. Personification
                 ‘the hoe is her barber’ 
                 ‘wheatfields raise their breadsome hands'
                 ‘let legumes clothe the naked bosom'
                 ‘shivering mounds'
                 ‘let the pawpaw swell and.                          swing its headward breasts'
                 ‘let gold rush'
                 ‘the dodging sky'
                 ‘unhappy dust’.

3. Alliteration 
                 ‘plough and plant'
                 ‘the hoe is her barber'
                 ‘the dibble her dimple’
                 ‘mattocks and matchets'
                 ‘the sweat which swells'
                 ‘heavy heaps’
                 ‘let legumes'
                 ‘swell and swing'
                 ‘unfathomed fountain'
                 ‘bustling barn'
                 ‘work not to waste'
                 ‘man not to maim’
                 ‘ours to plough not to plunder'.

4. Assonance 

                  ‘the sweat which swells’
                  ‘headward breasts’. 

5. Repetition
                  ‘ours' – lines 1, 24, 25 and 26.
                  ‘let' – lines 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 &                    19.
                  ‘earth' -lines 1, 15, 20, 23 & 26.
                  ‘plough' – lines 21 & 26.
                  *** ‘ours’ and ‘let‘ are cases of anaphora as they are repeated at the beginning of the clause/phrase.

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